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Balloon drama has happy ending

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - A 6-year-old boy was found hiding in
a cardboard box in his family's garage Thursday after being feared
aboard a homemade helium balloon that hurtled 50 miles through the
sky on live television.
The discovery marked a bizarre end to a saga that started when
the giant silvery balloon floated away from the family's yard
Thursday morning, sparking a frantic rescue operation that involved
military helicopters and briefly halted some departures from Denver
International Airport.
Then, more than two hours after the balloon gently touched down
in a field with no sign of the boy, Sheriff Jim Alderden turned to
reporters during a news conference, gave a thumbs up and said
6-year-old Falcon Heene was at his house.
"Apparently he's been there the whole time," he said.
The confusion over whether the boy was in the balloon arose as
the family tinkered with the craft Thursday and Falcon's father
scolded him for getting inside a compartment. He said Falcon's
brother saw him inside the compartment and that's why they
mistakenly thought he was aboard the balloon when it launched.
But the boy had fled to the garage, climbing a pole into the
rafters and hiding in a cardboard box, at some point after the
scolding and was never in the balloon during its two-hour, 50-mile
journey through two counties. "I yelled at him. I'm really sorry I
yelled at him," Richard Heene said, choking up and hugging Falcon
to him during a news conference.
"I was in the attic and he scared me because he yelled at me,"
Falcon said. "That's why I went in the attic."
Heene said the balloon wasn't tethered properly, and "it was a
mishap. I'm not going to lay blame on anybody."
The boys' parents are storm chasers who appeared twice in the
ABC reality show "Wife Swap," most recently in March. The show
promoted the Heene family as storm chasers who also "devote their
time to scientific experiments that include looking for
extraterrestrials and building a research-gathering flying saucer
to send into the eye of the storm."
Richard Heene adamantly denied the notion that the whole thing
was a big publicity stunt. "That's horrible after the crap we just
went through. No."
During a live interview with CNN, Falcon said he had heard his
family calling his name.
"You did?" Mayumi Heene said.
"Why didn't you come out?" Richard Heene said.
Falcon answered, "You had said that we did this for a show."
Later, Richard Heene bristled when the family was asked to
clarify and said he didn't know what his son meant. He didn't ask
his son what he meant by "a show."
The sheriff said he would meet with investigators on Friday to
see if the case warranted further investigation. "As this point
there's no indication that this was a hoax," Alderden said.
The flying saucer-like craft tipped precariously at times before
gliding to the ground in a dirt field 12 miles northeast of Denver
International Airport. Sheriff's deputies secured it to keep it in
place, tossing shovelfuls of dirt on one edge and poking holes to
let the helium out.
With the child nowhere in sight, investigators searched the
balloon's path. Several people reported seeing something fall from
the craft while it was in the air, and yellow crime-scene tape was
placed around the home.
Neighbor Bob Licko, 65, said he was leaving home when he heard
commotion in the backyard of the family. He said he saw two boys on
the roof with a camera, commenting about their brother.
"One of the boys yelled to me that his brother was way up in
the air," Licko said.
Licko said the boy's mother seemed distraught and that the boy's
father was running around the house.
Licko said he didn't believe any hoax was involved.
"Based on what I witnessed in the backyard in the morning with
the parents, I don't think that's the case," Licko said. "They're
better actors than I thought they were if that's the case."
In a 2007 interview with The Denver Post, Richard Heene
described becoming a storm chaser after a tornado ripped off a roof
where he was working as a contractor and said he once flew a plane
around Hurricane Wilma's perimeter in 2005.
Pursuing bad weather was a family activity with the children
coming along as the father sought evidence to prove his theory that
rotating storms create their own magnetic fields.
Although Richard said he has no specialized training, they had a
computer tracking system in their car and a special motorcycle.
While the balloon was airborne, Colorado Army National Guard
sent an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter and a Black Hawk UH-60 to try to
rescue the boy, possibly by lowering someone to the balloon. They
also were working with pilots of ultralight aircraft on the
possibility of putting weights on the homemade craft to weigh it
down.
Alderden said he didn't have an estimate of how much the search
cost. Capt. Troy Brown said the Black Hawk helicopter was in the
air for nearly three hours, and the Kiowa helicopter was airborne
for about one hour. The Black Hawk costs about $4,600 an hour to
fly, and the Kiowa is $700 an hour, Brown said.
Col. Chris Petty, one of the pilots aboard the Black Hawk, said
he was thrilled the boy was OK.
Asked what he would say to the 6-year-old if he saw him, Petty
said: "I'm really glad you're alive, I'm very thankful, but I'd
sure like to know the rest of the story."
The episode led to a brief shutdown of northbound departures
from one of the nation's busiest airports between 1 p.m. and 1:15
p.m. MDT, said Lyle Burrington, the National Air Traffic
Controllers Association representative at the Federal Aviation
Administration's radar center in Longmont, Colo. The balloon was
about 15 miles northwest of the airport at that time.
Before the departure shutdown, controllers had been routing
planes away from the balloon, Burrington said.
Jason Humbert said he was in a field checking on an oil well
when he found himself surrounded by police who had been chasing the
balloon.
"It looked like an alien spaceship you see in those old, old
movies. You know, those black-and-white ones. It came down
softly," Humbert said. "I asked a police officer if the boy was
OK and he said there was no one in it."
---
Associated Press writers Judith Kohler, Dan Elliott, Sandy Shore
and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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